Large Scale Mapping of Soil Organic Carbon Concentration with 3D Machine Learning and Satellite Observations

Camile Sothe
Alemu Gonsamo
Joyce Arabian
James Snider
Resource Date:

Canada has extensive forests and peatlands that play key roles in global carbon cycle. Canadian soils and peatlands are assumed to store approximately 20% of the world’s soil carbon stock. However, the spatial and vertical distributions of the soil organic carbon (SOC) concentration in Canada have not been systematically investigated. SOC concentration, expressed in g C kg−1 soil, affects the chemical and physical properties of the soil, such as water infiltration ability, moisture holding capacity, nutrient availability, and the biological activity of microorganisms. In this study, we tested a three dimensional (3D) machine learning approach and 40 spatial predictors derived from 20 years of optical and microwave satellite observations to estimate the spatial and vertical distributions of SOC concentration in Canada in six depth intervals up to 1 m. A quantile regression forest method was used to build an uncertainty map showing 80% of prediction intervals. Results showed that a random forest model associated with 25 covariates was successful in capturing 83% of spatial and vertical SOC variation over the country. Soil depth was the most important covariate to predict SOC concentration, followed by surface temperature and elevation. The SOC concentration in forested areas was highest in the top layers (0–5 cm), but soils located in peatlands showed higher C concentration in all soil depths. Among the terrestrial ecozones of Canada, Pacific Maritime and the Hudson Plain mostly covered by forest trees and peatlands, respectively, show highest SOC concentration, while the lowest concentration are observed in the Prairies and Mixed Wood Plain ecosystems that are the agricultural areas of the country. This study provides a deeper understanding of the major factors controlling SOC concentration in Canada and shows potential areas with high carbon reserves, which are crucial in view of the ongoing climate change. In addition, the presented methodological framework has great potential to be used in future soil carbon storage inventories using satellite observations. Mapping SOC concentration and associated uncertainties in Canada are fundamental to detect trends of gains or losses in SOC linked to recent and future national or global policy decisions related to soil quality and carbon sequestration.